Friday, November 23, 2007


Today I saw the most beautiful picture book, Yatandou. This one is award-worthy. By Gloria Whelan, who has written beautiful, lyrical novels, it tells the story of Yatandou, a girl living in a traditional Mali village. She spends her days tending her goat and pounding millet. The women in her village have heard of a contraption that will pound the millet for them - if they save enough money they can buy one. Yatandou dreams of learning to read and write and not having to pound millet three hours a day. Soon, all these dreams come true.

Whelan writes, in an author's note, about the "multi-functional platforms" that African women own, operate, and manage to make money for their villages.

The language is simple and beautiful with passages like, "Mother is returning. A water jug has had its little journey on her head."

The richly colored paintings by Peter Sylvadia evoke the heat of the desert and convey a sense of African life.

Not only is this picture book gorgeous, it also supports a good cause - the non-profit Building with Books. Building with Books engages urban youth in after-school programs where the kids engage in community service projects and go to developing countries to build schools. 90 of these schools where built in Mali.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reaching for Sun

The most beautifully-written book I have read all year is Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. This is a novel in free-verse, told in the voice of a young girl with cerebral palsy. While she struggles in the physical world, her inner world is an articulate and light-filled one.

This entry will be filled with quotes, because the writing is far more important in this one than even the plot.

With my odd walk
and slow speech
everyone knows
I've got special ed.
but if I wait
until the hall clears,

taunts like tomatoes
don't splatter
the back of my head.
(pg. 4)

I had to constantly stop to savor the metaphors. Passages like:
But Mom's dreams for me
are a heavy wool coat I
wear, even in summer.
(pg. 46)

I can't get over how carefully selected each word is and how much weight it carries, while not seeming heavy. There are very few words in this 180 page book, yet the story is well-rounded and complete, the characters three-dimensional.

In addition to strong word choices, this is a strong and compelling story. Josie has a hard time with the kids at school, for obvious reasons, but her vibrant home life with a feisty gradmother and always-busy mom help make up for it. When a new boy moves to the neighborhood he looks past her physical disabilities and sees her intelligence and creativity, making him a perfect friend. Josie struggles against her constant therapy sessions and practicing movement and speech. She struggles against a big lie she's telling her mom. And she struggles with the fear that her new friend may abandon her for cooler kids. These honest struggles make for a rich novel set completely in the metaphor of a garden, always growing, always reaching for sun.


Sunday, November 04, 2007


Amy Laura Schlitz’s new adaptation of the Brothers Grimm’s The Bearskinner is a well-told tale. It brought back the darkness and mystery that first drew me into classic fairy tales.

A soldier is walking through the woods one winter night, contemplating how he has no family, no food, and nowhere to sleep. He notices he is being followed by the devil. He knows that he shouldn’t make a bargain with the devil, but when a bear appears, he shoots it and that starts the process for the devil to take his soul. Soon the soldier has agreed to wear the bear’s skin and wander the world for seven years without bathing or grooming, but he will have more than enough money. If he doesn’t call upon God or commit suicide, he may have his soul back. Classic fairy tale events follow as the Bearskinner wanders the world, trying not to fall into despair.

Schlitz captures the tone of the bleak story as she begins with the passage,
They say that when a man gives up hope,
the devil walks at this side.
So begins this story:
A soldier marched through a dark wood,
and he did not march alone.
It’s positively eerie.

Max Grafe’s muddy-brown palette for the mixed-media illustrations actually makes them more beautiful and emphasizes the bleak medieval world of the Bearskinner. Only the devil’s coat is a brilliant, emerald green. He is meant to be tempting, and in that coat, he is.

This is one of the most enjoyable Grimm adaptations I’ve read in a while. It would make a beautiful gift book.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Crooked Kind of Perfect

I finished reading A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban, over a week ago and I really wanted to review it here but I got bogged down with other stuff. I am going to say right at the top here that this is my Newbery medalist prediction. It's not my very favorite book of the year, but it has that Newbery vibe going.

More than anything, ten-year-old Zoe wants to play the piano. She wants to be a prodigy like pianists in movies. She daydreams about herself in a flowing gown, sitting at a grand piano, playing on the stage at Carnegie Hall. In reality, Zoe's dad buys her a Perfectone D-60, an electric organ. Not the same thing at all!

Other things are not quite right either. When the cool girl at school invites her to a shoe-themed birthday party, Zoe brings socks as a gift. After that, Zoe has to sit at the boy's table in the cafeteria. The boys turn out to be pretty good friends for Zoe, especially Wheeler. Wheeler starts coming home with Zoe after school and befriends her agoraphobic father. Dad takes lots of correspondance courses on things like scuba diving or bread baking - things he doesn't actually do. While his fear of leaving the house can put a burden on Zoe, he's also a lot of fun and very supportive. Mom is in the picture, but is a workaholic. There are some touching scenes between Zoe and she, but dad is the major parental figure.

Zoe's Perfectone teacher invites her to participate in an organ competition; Zoe thinks "recital". Practicing "Forever in Blue Jeans" for her "recital" is not exactly what Zoe had in mind for her break-out performance, but she discovers that she really enjoys playing, even if it's not classical prodigy stuff. With the big competition to prepare for and fun at home with Wheeler and her dad, Zoe realizes that the strangest things can add up to perfect.

It was the well-drawn characters and quirky situations that made this novel really special. It's the author's first book, so I look forward to seeing more from her.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Robert's Snowflakes

The image galleries for this year's Robert's Snow illustrated snowflake auction are now up for viewing.

If you don't know the really interesting story of these it is. Robert Mercer was the husband of children's book author/illustrator Grace Lin. He had cancer and the two of them wanted to do something to raise money for cancer research, so they began sending out blank snowflakes to illustrators, based on a story by Grace. The illustrators decorate them and then they go up for auction to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Starting in 2004, they have auctioned off the snowflakes, done by different artists every year, raising over $200,000. Unfortunately, Robert lost his fight with cancer this past summer.

For more on the story and to see the galleries of snowflakes, check out the online auction page.